Trauma. Just six inoffensive letters, from the Greek word for wound, developing in the late 17th century into the English word we now recognize. In the dictionary, the basic definition of trauma is an injury. In the medical field, it’s further defined as a physical injury.

Depending on which dictionary you use, it’s described as a deeply distressing experience, an emotional upset, or a state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress. In both cases – mental and physical – the existence of trauma is based on something very out of the ordinary, something horrific, intruding into your existence.

Trauma Takes on Multiple Meanings

Experienced in an individual’s real life, this tiny word packs a punch. Though the details and intensity differ, the impact is much the same for everyone, whether it’s a nine-year old boy who escaped from a house fire, a twenty-something survivor of a mass shooting, or a fifty-seven-year old woman who has suffered from domestic abuse for years.

A Range of Trauma Reactions

The extent of trauma responses is as wide as the range of traumatic events, and can include:

  • Anxiety
  • Fear
  • Numbness or detachment
  • Anger or rage
  • Denial
  • Guilt
  • Hopelessness
  • Shame
  • Sorrow
  • Grief
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Trouble sleeping

Trauma causes these types of effects because in the moments of experiencing a traumatic event, we face overwhelming, life altering fear – a necessary emotion that enables us to respond to danger. It’s the basis of our survival instinct. The aftermath of that intense fear is what you see in the list above. It’s no surprise that trauma impairs a person’s overall ability to function – to think, to take care of physical functions like sleeping and eating, to actually functioning normally.

Since trauma often impairs functioning, it begs the questions: How do we recognize these signs in ourselves? How do we help ourselves in the aftermath of the violence and fear that puts us in this state?

My Story of Recognizing Trauma

From my own experience, I can tell you that it’s difficult to recognize these feelings in yourself. In the days and weeks after the bombing, I knew I wasn’t ok. That much was clear. I wasn’t sleeping well, I could barely eat. I was numb. Scared. Feeling isolated in my experience, because I wasn’t hearing any news stories about other people like me, without physical injuries but wounded nonetheless.

Perhaps worst of all, I felt shame – the heart-rending certainty that I had no right to feel the way I did. I walked away. Others were carried away on stretchers. Others died. To me it seemed that my problem wasn’t the bombing. My problem was that I wasn’t strong enough.

The realization about what I was feeling comes from hindsight (and a few hundred hours of work with therapists and counselors). At the time, I just knew things were bad. In the first few weeks, if you’d asked, I would have told you I was sad. Or depressed. Of course…I’d witnessed a murder. As the days and weeks went on, I told people I felt stuck in the middle of a barren, muddy field, with no way out. I sought professional help – not because I knew what was happening to me, but precisely because I didn’t.

Trauma Symptoms: Looking Within is More Difficult Than Looking Without

Recognizing symptoms of trauma in yourself is not as clear cut as seeing these symptoms in others. When you are feeling them, it can be hard to name them. Hard to identify which specific distressing reaction on that list you’re feeling in any particular moment.

From my own experience, the key to identifying psychological trauma in yourself has just three steps:

  1. Recognize that something bad has happened to you. This isn’t always clear cut. The ideas and input of other people (friends, family, the community, the news media, etc.) about what you should or shouldn’t be feeling can impact how you acknowledge and accept what’s happened.
  2. Understand that you were affected – humans are designed to respond to fear and be distressed by these kinds of events. It’s normal.
  3. If your life no longer feels right or you aren’t functioning the way you want to, or friends and family are telling you that you’re not functioning like your normal self, get help in any way you know how. Talk to friends or family. Call a therapist. Call a helpline. Talk to your imam or pastor. Take time alone to process what you’ve experienced, by journaling or reading. Most importantly, understand that every individual’s path to healing looks different.

For most of us, trauma will enter our lives at some point. It can be very difficult to manage it when it happens to you. However, the first step to healing comes in recognizing that you have experienced trauma and knowing that recovery is a journey.